After a long hiatus I’ve returned to Hilaire Belloc’s biographies – in this instance, his 1931 study of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, opponent of Catholicism, and founding member of the Church of England.
[T]he most important feature in that society was its religion. By the religion of a society is its whole character determined, and it was Cranmer’s attitude to religion which determines all his place in history.
Belloc is never completely unsympathetic to his subjects no matter how much he may disapprove of them. In Cranmer’s case he admires his prose style which left an indelible stamp on the English language. Showing his usual insights into psychology and personality, Belloc speculates on the English reformer’s early education:
[H]e himself ascribed to its methods that constant hesitancy or timidity of his which in great trial turned into rank cowardice; which he ever deplored throughout his strange life…. It is likely enough that this blaming of his schoolmaster was but an excuse — men love to make others responsible for their failings — but at any rate this schoolmaster, whoever he was, must have been a bully and perhaps cruel, for the memory of him to haunt the life of the man whom he had oppressed in childhood.
Belloc takes the same approach to the biographer’s art as Samuel Johnson. He offers a humanist synthesis rather than an indigestible chronicle of social archeology. Especially marked is the aptitude for discerning the thoughts that shape men’s deeds.
We can never dispense with the work of methodical specialists. They counterbalance the tendency to hagiography and myth-making. But if biography is to fulfill its didactic role, teaching us useful lessons about the lives of others, then perhaps there should be more books along the lines of Belloc’s Cranmer.